Academic journal article African Studies Review

Writing from the Center or the Margins? Olaudah Equiano's Writing Life Reassessed

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Writing from the Center or the Margins? Olaudah Equiano's Writing Life Reassessed

Article excerpt

Abstract:

This article is a literary analysis of the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. It examines Equiano's use of multiple discursive and rhetorical strategies in order to move the self of his slave narrator from "marginal" to "central" status in the international debate over slavery. The essay focuses on Equiano's understanding of morality as a multicultural framework and his application of Christian rhetoric in explaining it. The main argument is that his search for religious understanding and his experiential knowledge allowed him to move between cultural "centers" and cultural "margins" while speaking with an authoritative voice against slavery.

Résumé: Cet article propose une analyse littéraire de l'autobiographie de Olaudah Equiano, ou Gustavus Vassa, l'africain. Nous examinons l'utilisation faite par Equiano de stratégies discursives et rhétoriques multiples destinées à déplacer le moi de son narrateur esclave d'un statut "marginal" à un statut "central" dans le débat international sur l'esclavage. Cet essai se concentre sur la compréhension de la moralité chez Equiano comme phénomène multiculturel, et sur son application de la rhétorique chrétienne dans l'explication de ce phénomène. L'argument principal est que sa recherche de compréhension religieuse et sa connaissance empirique du monde lui permettent de se déplacer entre des "centres de culture" et des "marges de culture" tout en s'élevant contre l'esclavage d'une voix qui fait autorité.

Introduction

Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, was a bestseller when it was published in 1789, and in the past few years it has seen a resurgence in popularity. The text has been analyzed historically by Paul Edwards (1981, 1985) and by G. I. Jones, who traces Equiano's roots back to a fairly exact location in what was the Benin Kingdom (1967).

In addition to being traced and positioned historically, Equiano's Interesting Narrative has come under the scrutiny of literary critics. His use of the generic conventions of autobiography has been examined by Angelo Costanzo (1987), and the use to which he put the self or selves created in his autobiography has been delineated by Chinosole (1982), Susan Marren (1993), Marion Rust (1996), and Carl Plasa (2000). In his critique of discursive identities in self-construction, Chinosole argues that the point-of-view shifts in the text are indicative of "marginal and multiple identities," while Marren discusses these as multiple narrating selves serving as transgressors against cultural voices that would negate Equiano's existence. Rust understands Equiano's self as the condition of a black African "passing" for a white Englishman. Carl Plasa discusses Equiano's use of British imperial discourse, arguing that Equiano appropriated the discourses of his oppressors in order to deconstruct his position as an object of colonial rule. Thus present-day scholars and critics have read Equiano's text with and against the grain of literary, postcolonial, and cultural studies. Moreover, each has had a different interpretation of Equiano's position as a writer and a narrator speaking with an authoritative voice from a cultural "center" or with a placating voice from a cultural "margin."1

To date, however, there have been very few studies of Equiano's religious conversion and his use of religious discourse in constructing himself and his slave narrator in a position of centrality and authority when speaking about issues of slavery and freedom, evil and goodness, wickedness and morality. Adam Potkay's "Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography" (1994) is a comprehensive look at Equiano's use of the form and conventions of the spiritual autobiography as a "theological quest for origins" (678). Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds interprets Equiano's religious conversion as "a story of fiscal growth" in which the author delves into mercantile capitalism and makes a profit; she argues that as "a former slave and African moving through a world of European and American whites, Equiano's successes, spiritual and commercial, seem to come at the cost of his identity as an African, a member of a community for whom he from time to time ventures to speak" (1998:635). …

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